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Despite what might be said while discussing today’s current political climate, higher education does not exist in a bubble. Higher education is twisted and pulled in many directions by local issues that play out in the economy, housing and transportation sectors of the communities it serves.

In Higher Education and Silicon Valley (Johns Hopkins University Press), co-authors W. Richard Scott and Michael W. Kirst argue that nothing is a better example of higher education's complicated relationship with the locality it serves than what is seen in the San Francisco Bay Area. Kirst and Scott, as well as various credited colleagues, examine the ways that academe, built on tradition and structure, and the local economy -- built on “disruption” and innovation -- are “connected and conflicted.”

“The Bay Area has so much need for reskilling for people who already have a sound postsecondary education,” Kirst, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, told Inside Higher Ed. “These are adults, 30 and above, and as the economy changes, they need to learn new things.”

“Most students go to school, including adults, in their geographic region,” he said. “The regional focus is really an overlooked area of study.”

The book lays out many of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area’s connections to higher education. Human capital has always been vital to the region: the area has served as a hub for the defense industry, then evolved into a mecca for hardware and circuit technology, followed by becoming the center for industries related to personal computing, the internet and social media.

Although it's easy to point to public and private standouts such as Stanford or the University of California, Berkeley, that doesn't necessarily point to health across the region, the book argues:

The division of higher education into three tiers -- research universities [the University of California system], state colleges [the California State University system] and community colleges [the California Community Colleges system] -- has resulted in the unequal allocation of resources, as the top tier is favored while the lower and middle tiers receive inadequate resources and experience overly restrictive treatment. The tier approach also fosters policies that target only one layer of the system and neglect important issues of integration and coordination across levels, such as coherent regional planning.

The Bay Area’s various tech and tech-adjacent industries need an educated work force, including lawyers and consultants, for all the indirect business matters tied to that economy. At the same time, Bay Area business trends don’t always value what colleges -- essential to those businesses’ success -- value, and neither does the state of California.

“Colleges stress academic values, the preservation of existing knowledge, and do not accommodate change easily,” the authors write. “The Silicon Valley economy is subject to rapid change, both in terms of what types of industries dominate and what kinds of knowledge and skills are required.”

The gulfs in those value systems go on to manifest themselves in the real world. As spending on public colleges has stalled, and new public colleges aren’t likely to be build any time soon, corporate colleges, private for-profit institutions and short-term skills programs -- such as coding boot camps -- have filled in the gaps as the demand for education grows.

“They’re going to have to fill these gaps. We’re not going to build a University of California or Cal State here soon -- there’s no plan to do that,” Kirst said. “It gives you an idea of the nature of this problem.”

As it sits, Kirst and his colleagues point out, understanding those private institutions can be difficult. Digging through data, both from the state and different higher education organizations, doesn’t always paint an accurate picture. For-profit entities, the book notes, are licensed and overseen by the California State Department of Consumer Affairs. Not only are these institutions not listed in traditional education databases, but their educational quality isn’t always examined by an regulatory agency, since they fall under the Department of Commerce, creating an unregulated shadow education economy of sorts.

“California and the Bay Area have no policy for nongovernment, private education,” Kirst said. “One of the things we call for is better understanding of what’s going on in private education.”

To be fair, not all private solutions are as hard to trace or measure: Northeastern University and Carnegie Mellon University have also established Bay Area campuses in an effort to both tap into demand from students who want to travel closer to the action, and to pick up those who are already there.

And just as these private solutions are hard to trace and measure, they don’t serve everyone, either. And if the state doesn’t step in to fill those gaps, it means more headaches for a region plagued by housing crises and long commutes.

The Bay Area has more than seven million people, Kirst said, but only three traditional, four-year state universities in the California State University System, “located in old areas that are very hard to get to, transportation-wise” -- San Francisco State University, San Jose State University and California State University at East Bay.

“If we had a state of 7.3 million people, would you have three institutions like that? We have Contra Costa County, with over a million people, with no comprehensive, four-year public university,” Kirst said, although he emphasized that community colleges and other shorter-term higher education often don’t receive adequate attention, either.

But the book isn’t intended to be bleak -- it’s intended to serve as a jumping-off point for more research and policy leadership for finding solutions for higher education, whether private or public, at a comprehensive, regional level.

Kirst pointed to Pennsylvania’s system of regional state university campuses and suggested updating California’s master plan for higher education -- which was crafted in the 1960s -- and considering the ever-changing workplace qualifications of Bay Area residents as potential starting points for the discussion.

“This is a call for recognition and getting our regional act together,” Kirst said.

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